Saanvi, a 23-year-old art student from Mumbai who identifies as a lesbian, had been comfortable with her sexuality for quite some time. The only thing that made her feel guilty was that she hadn’t come out to her friends and family yet. After talking this over with a counsellor, she decided to come out to her mother first, and only later to the rest of her family. She started leaving books and leaflets with information or stories about the LGBTIQA community in her living room for her family members to find, wanting to see how they would react. A few discussions at the dinner table went well, giving her the confidence to speak up. One day, she took her mother out for shopping and lunch, and bought her a saree. During lunch, she finally told her mother that she was a lesbian. She was shocked, and didn’t react too much at the time. But soon, it became obvious that she was finding it tough to come to terms with her daughter’s revelation.
Saanvi didn’t give up—she convinced her mother to accompany her to psychologists and counsellors until she (unwillingly) accepted her daughter’s sexuality. But without the reassurance that her mother would fully back her, Saanvi realised that it would be difficult to come out to her father or other relatives. The easy confidence she had in her choices was affected and she feels she will not be comfortable in taking anyone else into confidence anytime soon.
Saanvi’s mother hasn’t worn the saree her daughter bought her that day even once.
For most people, coming out about one’s sexuality is a prolonged event that may be accompanied by abrasive reactions, violence, trauma and self-harm. The result is usually painful, and may convince at least some that it’s better to stay quiet.
Even a few years ago, the average Indian may have been ignorant that there could be different kinds of sexualities. However, the legal battle against Section 377 and Pride marches for advocacy have put a spotlight on the LGBTIQA community.
Coming out is a difficult decision to take. There are numerous questions involved—what is the right time to come out? How does one come out to anyone? Who is the right person to come out to? How much do you tell them? What are the consequences? Is one really prepared to speak or is the decision taken under some pressure? What can one expect from the person they are coming out to?
There are no specific guidelines or right/wrong answers to these questions, as several factors — socio-economic, educational, cultural background etc — play a role in this. But it is advisable to seek professional help before going forward.
28-year-old Zafar was forced to get married early after his father was diagnosed with cancer. He went through depression because he identified as gay and getting married to a woman was never his choice. He went for psychotherapy on his partner’s suggestion and eventually got his father along for a counselling session. He came out to his father in front of the psychologist. Zafar felt relieved because he could now share what he felt with his father, but would need some more time to speak to his mother. His father initially remained in denial about his son’s sexuality, but after a few sessions, was willing to accept him on two conditions — he would never bring any of his boyfriends home and he would never talk about his sexuality to anyone else in the family. Zafar found he could put up with these conditions, at least for now.
The mental health concerns related to coming out vary at different levels, ranging from depression, anxiety, distorted self-image, low self-confidence, suicidal ideation, suicidal attempts, angry outbursts, anti-social behaviour and substance abuse. These concerns spring from mainly the following issues:
- Denial or no acceptance from family members. Often, families do not accept a child who identifies as LGBTIQA. They either have to leave the house or live a suppressed life and are deprived of their legal and fundamental rights. Sometimes, they are also treated disrespectfully by family members.
- Alternate treatment — Many are taken to faith healers, religious leaders and spiritual gurus under the misbelief that they are suffering from some ill fate or are possessed and can be cured. While some family members take their children to quacks who promise a cure from this disease, others go to a psychologist or psychiatrist who is willing to offer therapy to modify the queer behaviour at a high cost.
- Corrective rapes — In such cases, the queer individual is forced to have sex with an individual from the opposite sex. Often, elder members from the extended families are allowed to bed with the queer individual or sex workers are hired. The mental trauma one undergoes because of these corrective rapes is sometimes irreparable, and leads to several other psychological concerns.
- Forced marriage is the socially accepted option that many parents opt for because then everything can be pushed under the carpet and the children are forced to start a new life. This is mostly carried out through emotional blackmail, threats of physical harm, withholding property and wealth or threats to cast them out from the family or community. This spoils the life of the spouse as well because they never have a satisfying life with their partner and often, such marriages end up in a divorce.
Saurabh made a frantic call to a mental health centre to seek an urgent appointment with a psychologist because he was suicidal and didn’t know what to do. He had found his younger sister and wife in a compromising position after returning from work early that day. When he confronted them, they told him that they had been in love with each other for five years. As there was no way that their families and society would have allowed them to live together, they tried this way — to get the girl married to him so they could live under one roof. Saurabh was devastated, but decided to seek professional help for all of them. After a few months of therapy, they collectively decided that Saurabh would divorce his wife and support his sister and her partner to help them settle abroad. This is, however, a rare situation where everyone finds some kind of peace and maybe even happiness.
Coming out is a life-changing decision for everyone who wants to live their life the way they want to. Unfortunately, in our country, it is accompanied by many worries. We are waiting for the day when coming out is not a scary experience but until then, one has to tread this path with great caution and, if possible, with professional guidance, at least initially.
Names have been changed.
The author is a psychologist and outreach associate at Mpower—The Centre, in Mumbai. Mpower is an organisation that helps people tackle mental health issues.